Editor’s note: Kelly Wallace is CNN’s digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. She is a mom of two girls. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter.
Every time I hear about another case of a woman breastfeeding her baby in a restaurant, department store or on a plane who is asked to cover up, head to the bathroom or leave altogether, I wonder why in 2014 we remain so incredibly uncomfortable with breastfeeding in public.
In one of the most recent examples that garnered national attention, a mom in Beverly Hills says she was escorted to the bathroom at an Anthropologie store when she was breastfeeding her six-week-old baby. Outraged, she took to social media and less than a day later more than 100 women staged a “nurse-in” at the store to protest.
Beaverton, Oregon, was the site of another recent “nurse-in” after a breastfeeding mom was asked to cover up in a restaurant.
In both cases, reaction was decidedly mixed. There were plenty who were as furious as the breastfeeding mothers and pointed to California and Oregon laws, which allow women to breastfeed in any public or private location with the exception of someone else’s private home. But there were also plenty of voices in the anti-breastfeeding-in-public camp.
“It’s not about what’s ‘legal,'” wrote one reader on the Oregon Live website. “It’s more about what’s ‘right.’ And the effects our choices have on the people around us. A simple burp rag over the child and the problem goes away.”
Why at a time when celebrities bare nearly all and are celebrated for it (for example, consider Kim Kardashian leaving little to the imagination at the recent MTV Video Music Awards) do we as a society still seem so put off by a woman using her breasts for what they were made for?
“Many times you will see more ‘cleavage’ in the name of fashion than you ever would from a mom feeding her child,” said Raivon Lee, a breastfeeding mom of a 19-month-old.
Let me just say right here that this is not a piece on the benefits of breastfeeding or a push to make the case that “breast is best” and encourage women to breastfeed.
This is strictly about why the sight of public breastfeeding still makes so many people squeamish and what it will take to make breastfeeding in public as welcome as giving a baby a bottle.
Lee, who lives in Atlanta and hosts a blog called Vain Mommy, believes people’s “uneasiness” with breastfeeding in public stems from the perception of women as sexual objects.
“Women buy into that idea,” she said. “If we use our breasts for anything other than ‘play’ it’s not okay.”
Earlier this month, in connection with Breastfeeding Awareness Month, Lee joined 50 other nursing moms, members of a group called the “Badass Breastfeeders of Atlanta,” for a “Big Latch On” event where they nursed together in public and were joined by their families and other bystanders.
Part of the goal, says Lee, was to help communities support breastfeeding in public places.
“The message is simply: Nursing is normal anytime, anywhere . . . any way.”
Lee says she’s never been asked to leave a restaurant or store while she was breastfeeding but says it’s probably because she’s a “shy” nurser, who has been self-conscious because of people’s discomfort with breastfeeding in public.
“Sadly, it has affected me, and I’m sure other moms have been (affected) too.”
Years of experience have certainly made some mothers, like Stephanie Dulli of Washington much more comfortable breastfeeding in public.
On Facebook, Dulli shared how with her first baby, she nursed privately in the back room of her home when company was over. With her second, she nursed publicly but covered up. With her third baby, who is 2 months old, she says she “answered the door for the UPS guy while nursing, uncovered and didn’t even notice.”
“Nursing is just something I do now,” said Dulli, who blogs about parenting at Stephanie Says. “I’m not embarrassed or ashamed. When I’m in public I do try to be thoughtful to others but I nurse whenever (the) baby is hungry.”
Dulli says she has never been asked by anyone to leave a public place while breastfeeding.
“I’d love to see them try!” she told me. “I’ve nursed everywhere from the South Lawn of the White House to the National Cathedral to airplanes and Little League dug outs and no one has said anything!”
When I asked Dulli what she thinks it will take for us to be as comfortable with a woman breastfeeding in public as we are with a mom giving her baby a bottle in public, she said “time.”
“I think by the time my daughter is nursing … it won’t be a big deal,” she said.
Lee, the Atlanta mom of one, says the way to make public breastfeeding more acceptable is to make “working breasts more visible.”
“We as moms, myself included, need to be bold and comfortable with nursing in public,” says Lee. “We aren’t doing anything wrong. If our child is hungry, we should pull our breast out just as we would a bottle. The breast was the first bottle.”
Lee said more education is also needed.
“As silly as it sounds, we need to educate the community on the fact that breastfeeding is indeed normal, natural and okay”.
Judgment of any mother’s feeding choice needs to stop, say moms. Because some people’s discomfort with public breastfeeding may stem from their own insecurities about breastfeeding or a feeling that the “breast is best” crowd is passing judgment on those who choose not to breastfeed or those who can’t.
Michelle Noehren, founder of CTWorkingMoms.com, is not uncomfortable when she sees women breastfeeding in public but believes we need to do more to support all women’s choices.
Noehren said she had every intention of breastfeeding but after her daughter’s birth, which was traumatic, she needed to stop breastfeeding to take medication to cope with the trauma.
“Through my personal experience I learned to be less judgmental of other parents’ feeding choices because I realized that sometimes not breastfeeding isn’t even a choice; it’s simply not possible,” said Noehren, who has a 3-year-old daughter. “I also think that women who choose formula from the start, for whatever reason, should not be made to feel guilty.”
It’s a matter of respect.
“Women deserve the right to be in control of what we do with our bodies,” Noehren said.